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Opinion

December 7, 2013

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Goodbye, Mr Mandela. And thank you

A giant died in Johannesburg on Thursday. On his road to greatness he achieved many staggering feats: ended apartheid; became South Africa’s first black president; won the Nobel Peace Prize. The world stands in awe of these achievements, but the loss we mourn today and the life we celebrate is of the humanity embodied in the man who became a giant.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918-2013) is loved like no other person on this planet because in a world rotting in its own cynicism he reaffirmed our belief in the power of humanity: that goodness matters; that change is possible; that reconciliation can be justice; that humility is strength; that a smile can be a weapon; that hope lives. To miss this point is to misunderstand, mistake, and misinterpret what made Nelson Mandela the giant that he was.
In announcing Nelson Mandela’s death, the current South African President Jacob Zuma rightly noted that “our nation has lost its greatest son, our people have lost a father.” Yet, the “sense of profound and enduring loss” he spoke of is not just a South African, or even an African, loss. It is a truly global loss; a human loss.
It is unfair to think of Nelson Mandela – or Madiba, as he was often called– as only an African leader. It is unfair to him and also to so many in the rest of the world who looked up to this giant like we have not looked up to anyone else. We looked up to him not only because of his colossal achievements, but because he encouraged us to reflect upon our own potential for change. His generous humility invited us to unlock that potential. His infectious – sometimes mischievous – smile challenged us to do so.
What, then, can Nelson Mandela offer to Pakistan? At least three things immediately come to mind. None is unique to Pakistan, but all are most pertinent to our current afflictions.
1. A theory of justice. Mr Mandela’s was a long and painful journey that went through many phases: legal action, social

contestation, armed struggle, incarcerated defiance, reconciliation. His pursuit of justice was unwavering, stubborn and consistent. But it was never vengeful. He understood an essential truth: justice is not only about settling scores for an unjust past, it is also about creating the conditions for a just future.
His theory of justice is rooted in politics, not in idealism. Yet, it is idealistic, not political. It is so much more than just forgetting what has happened, but also so much less than vengeful retribution. Mandela’s demons were no less grotesque than the ones the rest of the world, including Pakistan, faces today. Yet, he understood that justice comes from creating the conditions for justice much more than simply lusting for revenge.
Mandela’s struggle was to create a just society much more than merely punish injustice. This is a hard distinction to hold on to as injustice is piled on your person as well as your people. The greatness of this giant comes from the fact that he never let go despite all he was put through at Robben Island and beyond.
There is no contradiction in the Mandela who tells us that “when a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw”, and the Madiba who understands that “no one is born hating another person… People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Indeed, justice becomes real only when we can believe in both these sentiments simultaneously and passionately.
2. A doctrine of hope. Mandela became Madiba because the one thing his oppressors wanted to take from him, he refused to give. His sense of optimism.
Mandela was – even in his later years when his image was of a venerable, frail, smiling, touchy-feely and funny elder statesman – a man of steely resolve, unwavering determination and unrelenting commitment. But above all he had always had unending reserves of patience and optimism. His was not an optimism of idealists, it was one of action. The type that can only come from a deep belief in one’s own self and cause. The courage that we have come to recognise as his hallmark was itself a source as well as a product of that optimism.
What Mandela has to say on this matter is best said in his own words: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lay defeat and death… I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Mandela’s doctrine of optimism is not simply a state of mind, it is a state of action. It is important precisely because it is the magic ingredient that keeps one going on his ‘long walk to freedom’. Mandela seems to be talking about us as much as himself when he says, “do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
3. A practice of leadership. Perhaps Mandela’s leadership style is difficult to emulate. Unfortunately, there are no other Mandelas lurking around. Certainly not in Pakistan. But he has left some clues to leadership that all leaders everywhere will be wise to pay heed to.
Born a leader of the Xhosa tribe, he had learnt much from the leadership practices of the tribal chiefs. Most importantly, the idea he kept repeating was of “leading from behind”. A leader, he believed, is like a shepherd: “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.”
The single act of stepping down after one term as president was probably his most important act of leadership. At the most primal level this was a remarkable act because this is not what leaders in such situations have generally done; because it created the right precedent for others to follow; and because it denied time and space to the corrupting influences of power. At a deeper level, this was a spectacular display of leadership because it articulated an unwavering confidence in others and in his own society and an encouragement for them to take responsibility.
Mandela understood the challenges his country faced and he realised that the job was not yet done. But he also realised that the job was bigger than his person and if it were ever to be done it would be done by the many and not just by him. In refusing to be sucked into that all-too-familiar cult of the indispensible leader right when he was as adulated as he was, he demonstrated much courage. More than that, he demonstrated much wisdom. As Mandela’s ancestors had so wisely impressed upon him, sometimes the greatest measure of leadership is stepping back and letting others lead.
* * * * *
In conclusion, one hopes that as we all think of Nelson Mandela, we will think also of what his life means for what our own life can be. He was fond of saying that “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” Mr Mandela was a giant because he got it done. He got it done because he never stopped trying.
Goodbye, Mr Mandela. And thank you.
The writer has taught international relations and diplomacy at Boston University and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
Twitter: @adilnajam

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